Sunday, June 08, 2014

The Bibliography: a thought on the vanity of learning

One way to guarantee yourself a sense of intellectual inadequacy is to keep learning. I'm not the first to notice that the more you learn, the less you feel like you know... the more you read, the more you realize you haven't read. Every book I read has a bibliography, every book in each bibliography has its own bibliography.... there's just too much! Is not learning just vanity?

But how, in the process of learning, do we keep from feeling defeated? Some have overcome this feeling of inadequacy by hiding it from others and even from themselves. I have had phases of life where I have successfully convinced myself that I know enough about something. I have accepted, under certain circumstances and on certain topics, the illusion of expertise. But that's all it's ever been--an illusion. All I really did was hide from the bibliography or at least ignore its significance. But such a perspective is naive, even immature. Certainly, intellectual maturity would dictate the acknowledgement that we are never really experts, that there's always more... that what is always exceeds what we know and that what we do not know is of significance, even in virtue of our incapacity to know it. We cannot, if we want to be mature and honest in our intellectual endeavors, evade the sense of inadequacy and defeatism simply by deceiving ourselves into ignorance of the content which produces such feelings. This creates problems of its own--arrogance, to name one. 

There must be a way to avoid feeling defeated without ignoring the bibliography. There must be a way out of the despair of feeling completely inadequate without deceiving ourselves about ourselves. But what is it? 

I think that however we paint it, the reality is that the feelings of inadequacy which accompany an honest acknowledgement of the limits of our knowledge in the face of the immensity of what is are always the product of another deception. The more subtle deception--more subtle than the deception of ignoring the bibliography--is the that of affirming and expecting our own ability. We feel defeated because we deceived ourselves into thinking that our action is, on its own, building something other than a tower of Babel. If we don't underestimate the content of what is then we overestimate our ability to apprehend it. If we don't ignore the bibliography then we do ignore the impossibility that surrounds our action. Our feelings of inadequacy come from the false expectation from which we set out--the expectation that we could or even should know enough. We thought it was our job to get it and to do it according to our ability, so it added up to a failure of our ability when we realized we couldn't do that job... so we feel defeated. Why bother? 

This is why we're invited not to trust in our own action so much as to receive God's. The only way from despair to hope, in anything including our intellectual endeavors, is not to look to the future of our own ability, but to look to Christ and his future... and to look to them specifically as our future and the future of our action. It's not to the future, as such, that we look, but it's specifically to the future of Jesus Christ, from which we receive ours. J├╝rgen Moltmann wrote, "...it is proclaimed that [Jesus] is himself the resurrection and the life and that consequently believers find their future in him and not merely like him. Hence they wait for their future by waiting for his future" (Theology of Hope, 83). Thus, the limitation of knowledge and its eschatologically provisional character precedes us. Our knowledge of what is, our apprehension of it, was never supposed as a potential. What is supposed and even expected according to the event of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is that we human beings are to encounter what is, to receive it as grace--to participate in it dynamically, not to imitate it epistemologically or to dominate it.

All this is to say, when we approach the bibliography, we must not do so under the expectation that it is ours to manage. We must do so under the expectation that in it the God who created it might meet us, encounter us, and that we might receive from God some foretaste of God's own future. We read, we learn, we discover, not in order to build our tower or to apprehend our reality. We'll never know it all. Rather, we in our provisional knowledge, are called to learn and read as a way to lean into and experience the reality of God. We know in order to participate, not in order to control or dominate.

When we approach knowledge with such eschatological focus and humility, with the expectation not of ability from ourselves but of grace from God, then the bibliography will not crush our spirits or tempt us to hide from it. Rather, the bibliographies of reality will open our eyes to wonder and to hope. Reality will become for us not an equation to be solved but a painting to be appreciated... and knowledge, even the solving of equations, will be for the greater purpose of better appreciation of the painting. 

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